Technology can set patterns for behavior, and for the past 40-plus years, travel technology has habituated anyone booking a trip to start with the same question: "Where do you want to go?"
Whether you're a travel agent booking through a GDS or a consumer visiting an online travel agency or airline or hotel website, you start the booking by typing in a city pair or destination.
While this first step makes a lot of sense if booking corporate travel, it's a strange place to start for leisure trips. Some leisure clients might know exactly where they want to go and what they want to do, but the value proposition for traditional travel agents would erode quickly if every traveler did.
Perhaps Amadeus' Affinity Shopper was selected as the top new travel technology "innovation" at the PhoCusWright Conference earlier this month because it took a different approach. Affinity Shopper's most obvious innovation was to not ask "Where do you want to go?" Rather, it prompted travelers to say what they want to do and how much they want to spend.
(Another possible reason Affinity Shopper won the innovation contest was that Amadeus had 31 employees attending -- and voting -- at PhoCusWright, about 29 more than any of its rivals in the competition.)
The idea of asking travelers what they want to do is not original. Travel agents have traditionally spent more time exploring a client's psyche (and budget) than they have spent on the actual booking process.
Other online players know that querying "Where do you want to go?" is not the best way to approach a sale. To compensate, most online travel sellers have tried to substitute counseling with user-generated or licensed destination content so visitors can research destinations themselves. Interestingly, Fodor's, the guidebook company, is preparing to announce an initiative called "80 Degrees" on its website that has a more ambitious approach, linking its own content more closely to a decision-making tool.
"The online travel world has done a good job booking hotels and airline seats, but there's a frustration among consumers at the beginning of travel planning," Fodor's publisher, Tim Jarrell, told me. "There's something about the technology that gets in the way of the process. Before they book, consumers need to figure out where they want to go, and that's something the online process has not been able to solve yet. We wanted to build a platform for deciding where to go."
Their solution, Vacation Finder, will be on Fodors.com from Jan. 11 through Feb. 27. It asks a series of questions to help buyers narrow their choices, then generates a micro-site that ranks destinations according to how closely they match the consumer's preferences and also provides an editorial overview from Fodor's guides and online community. Jarrell said he would welcome hearing from suppliers and large travel agencies with a focus on deals in North American warm-weather destinations to help populate the range of possibilities.
Another publisher, Conde Nast Traveler, recently announced a program in conjunction with Jetsetter, a heretofore members-only luxury deals site, to more closely link decision-enhancing content to the booking process. "We drive our readers to book," said Conde Nast Traveler publisher Chris Mitchell, citing the Iconic Itineraries and Places and Prices sections in each issue.
The Jetsetter program, which will launch in January, will target additional, opportunistic bookings, Mitchell said, but not at the expense of the more ambitious trips with longer planning cycles that the travel agents book. "Our Travel Specialists List [which showcases specific travel agents] leads to upwards of $25 million in bookings to those agents every year," he told me.
But how might all this interest in technology-enabled counseling affect agents? After an article about Amadeus' Affinity Shopper appeared on TravelWeekly.com, Rick Garrett of Travel Pacific in Aptos, Calif., posted this comment: "When a GDS starts talking about building an intelligent website, you can count on it being designed to replace travel agents, not augment their abilities. Helping consumers sort through the billion-plus travel pages available online to make informed decisions has always been our role. This Amadeus platform is clearly an attempt to usurp that role, and we should all be very concerned."
Some consumers are likely to view Affinity Shopper as a substitute for travel agents, but I'm not sure all suppliers will want to jump on the bandwagon. The underlying foundation for all of the initiatives described above is "deals," which at this particular moment are plentiful. While suppliers will work with deals sites to unload distressed merchandise, most would rather work with a channel that can both upsell and demonstrate value in their higher-priced products. That's still difficult to accomplish online.
The pace of development toward true online trip counseling has been slow, but it does inch forward. Will it one day, in Garrett's words, "replace travel agents"?
Keep an eye on supplier behavior. While ultimately it will be consumers who judge the effectiveness of these sites, there has to be attractive inventory at the end of the electronic counseling process. Short term, suppliers feel the pressure to discount. But they are also aware that their best yields come from agents. If suppliers continue to feed deals-focused electronic counseling sites even after the economy stabilizes, the sales dynamic may truly be forever changed.
Contact Arnie Weissmann at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter.